California Mission Church Named Minor Basilica by Pope Francis Undergoes Renovations

A series of augmentations and upgrades beautify and preserve the historic Mission Buenaventura.

Renovations, including lighting and a repaired St. Joseph statue, can be seen at the mission, which was recently named a minor basilica by Pope Francis.
Renovations, including lighting and a repaired St. Joseph statue, can be seen at the mission, which was recently named a minor basilica by Pope Francis. (photo: Courtesy Mission San Buenaventura; statue conservator Patty West)

Catholics in California experienced some tumultuous and trying times last June, which saw violent mobs pull down statues of St. Junípero Serra in several major California cities and California Gov. Gavin Newsom close the doors of the state’s churches to worshippers due to the pandemic. But there was some good news for the faithful of the Golden State: Pope Francis had designated Southern California’s Mission Buenaventura a minor basilica.  Despite being the country’s most populous diocese, it was the first church in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles — the country’s most populous diocese — to receive such a designation and the 88th in the United States.

Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez called the mission’s pastor, Father Tom Elewaut, on June 30 to inform him of the designation.  The archbishop celebrated a Mass on the mission grounds on July 15, the feast day of the mission’s namesake, to publicly announce the Pope’s decision, during which he explained the significance of the honor: “When the pope designates a basilica, it means this is holy ground, that something beautiful and important in the history of salvation happened here.”

It was good news when the mission needed it, Father Elewaut said.  He added, “I was ecstatic. It is a great honor.”


An Archdiocesan First

Of the state of California’s 21 Franciscan missions, four were basilicas before June, but none of the five missions in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. The approval comes after a series of renovations and upgrades to beautify and preserve the historic mission, including a new lighting system that highlights the mission’s beautiful artwork.  

J.R. Dominguez of Mar Vista Sales of Ventura oversaw installation of a theatrical lighting system in the church; his father had previously installed its lighting beginning in the 1980s. “Our goal was to highlight the Stations of the Cross and other artwork along the walls as well as the statues,” Dominguez said. “We were delighted with the results; visitors can now really see the colors intended by the artists.”

Patty West of the South Coast Fine Arts Conservation Center in Santa Barbara has been performing conservation work on the church’s statues.  Many statues have been damaged by natural causes — fire, earthquake and flooding — as well as by poorly executed conservation work performed in past decades.  “We strive to uncover the beauty of the art and reveal what the artists originally created,” she explained.

She has performed conservation work at 18 of California’s missions over the past 40 years and is currently co-authoring a book, “Hidden Treasures of the California Missions,” about her experiences that should be in print by the end of 2021. Working on Mission San Buenaventura has been a particular “joy,” she noted, as “Father Tom is so interested in the art and enthusiastic about preserving it.”

After the July 15 announcement, mission officials added insignia and décor unique to a basilica. 

The insignia includes the use of the papal keys, a link to the pope’s four major basilicas in Rome, which is displayed on the mission’s buildings, stationery and promotional materials.  In addition, the mission church will also be receiving some new décor unique to churches that have been named basilicas. A cone-shaped canopy or ombrellino is on order and will be placed over the church’s lectern, and a tintinnabulum, or bell mounted on a pole, is on display in the church sanctuary and will be used for parish processions.  

“In the Middle Ages, when the pope left St. Peter’s Basilica to visit other basilicas in Rome, the ombrellino or umbrella, would be placed over his head, and the tintinnabulum would be carried along with his procession,” Father Elewaut explained. “They have evolved to become symbols of a basilica.”


9th of the 21 California Missions

Mission San Buenaventura is the 9th of the 21 California missions founded by Spanish Franciscan missionaries and the last to be founded by Father Junípero Serra (1713-84) himself in 1782. Its primary purpose was to bring the Chumash Indians of the region to the Catholic faith; a secondary purpose was to improve the standard of living for the Chumash and to make them citizens of New Spain. The mission was named for 13th-century Franciscan St. Bonaventure, a doctor of the Church.  

The mission’s historic church was completed in 1809; it is surrounded by well-maintained gardens. The mission is located just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean; in fact, in 1812, its residents had to flee the site due to a series of earthquakes and accompanying tidal wave.

The Mexican government seized mission lands up and down the California coast in 1834 and eventually sold the property to private parties. Catholic authorities regained control of the San Buenaventura site in 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation declaring the Mexican government’s actions unjust and illegal. The historic church has undergone alterations and restorations over the years. Pre-pandemic, it drew about 50 visitors a day; Father Elewaut has served as pastor since 2011.

Among the mission’s unique features, Father Elewaut said, are its Pietà, a replica of Michelangelo’s famous statue located in St. Peter’s Basilica, its tapestry depicting Father Serra, a duplicate of the one used for Serra’s 2015 canonization, and an abundance of historic artwork which predates the mission itself. Father Elewaut noted, “We are a sacred museum.”

While much preservation work has been completed, because of the mission’s age preservation work is ongoing. West is currently working on a statue of St. Anthony of Padua, for example, and in 2022 will move on to a St. Francis statue, noted Father Elewaut.

Theresa Sullivan, a parishioner for nearly 50 years, is among those impressed with the preservation work occurring at the mission. She said, “I thought it was pretty before, but it sure is beautiful now.” Whereas much of the artwork was dark and indiscernible previously, she continued, “The images are lit up and you can really see and appreciate their beauty now.”

Sullivan credits Father Elewaut for the success of the preservation effort, as well as the drive to name the site a basilica. She said, “The church and grounds are brighter, lighter and nicer. You can really notice the change.”


Difficult Year

2020 was a difficult year for the mission — as it was for all Catholics in California, and beyond. The pandemic closed the mission to visitors for four months, and mobs pulled down statues of Father Serra in San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles; the justification offered was that Serra and the Franciscans were abusive toward the California Native peoples. The city of Ventura had two statues of Serra on display, including a 9-foot bronze one in front of the city hall, which was a particular target. A mob approached June 20 to tear it down, but a Rosary-praying group of Catholics, including 25 students from Thomas Aquinas College located in nearby Santa Paula, encircled the statue until the crowds dispersed.

Father Elewaut recalled, “Many in that group were misinformed, calling Father Serra a racist who wanted to destroy Indian culture. But Father Serra loved the Indian people and wanted to share Christianity with them as well as a standard of living to which Europeans were accustomed.”

So Father Elewaut met with city leadership and Chumash leaders, and it was agreed to move the statue to a safe location on the mission grounds. As part of the transfer, it was agreed that there would be no “character assassination” of Serra offered as a reason for its removal. Some accused Father Elewaut of caving into the demands of the mob by agreeing that the statue ought to be removed from public grounds, but he noted, “If we did not move the statue, it would be only a matter of days or weeks before someone would come again to destroy it.”

He has recommended to the city of Ventura that the statue be given to the mission on “permanent loan,” so that it could be returned to city hall when “more people have a better understanding of the work Father Serra and the Franciscans.”

Father Elewaut noted that despite recent challenges, Mission San Buenaventura is still beloved by many. Mass attendance has been increasing, and weekend Masses are being added, he said; and many have written him to express support.  

The basilica designation is a “great joy,” he concluded, as it will raise the mission’s profile and make it a place of pilgrimage for many.

He said, “I am grateful to be at this historic place to serve God’s people and look forward to continuing the process of preserving and augmenting its sacred beauty.”